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Natural Hazard Policy (11/16/12)

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Natural hazards are consequences of multiple different dynamic Earth processes. These consequences manifest themselves as numerous risks to society and the environment, including: drought, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and wildfires. This page covers policy about understanding, preparing for, mitigating and adapting to natural hazards. It covers agencies and programs responsible for hazard work such as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP), and the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). For more information regarding hazard legislation in the U.S. Congress, visit the Hazards Caucus Alliance website.

In the 111th Congress, the House passed the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2010 (H.R. 3820) to reauthorize NEHRP and support a wind hazards program, but it failed to make it out of the Senate. The Alaskan senators Lisa Murkowski and Mike Begich introduced the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (S.782) and Representative Don Young introduced a similar bill (H.R. 4847) in the House. Neither bill advanced through their respective chambers.

Recent Action

Great ShakeOut Holds Largest Earthquake Drill in the World (10/12)
On October 18, more than 14.6 million people participated in the Great ShakeOut, an earthquake drill which teaches participants to “Drop, Cover and Hold On.” Participating regions included California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Guam, and British Columbia, joined for the first time by Alaska, Arizona, Puerto Rico, Southeast U.S. (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland), Washington, and Southern Italy. While most ShakeOut drills were scheduled for October 18, groups and individuals could register and participate over the two weeks before and after this date. Drill manuals and other planning documents can be found on the Great ShakeOut web site. The ShakeOut was held in participation with organizations including the Southern California Earthquake Center, National Science Foundation, University of Southern California, U.S. Geological Survey, Earthquake Country Alliance and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Superstorm Sandy Hits the Atlantic Coast (10/12)
Superstorm Sandy, the result of hurricane Sandy merging with a nor’easter to create a 1,000 mile wide superstorm, hit the Atlantic Coast on October 29 through 30 leaving at least 98 people dead and more than 8.2 million households without power in the U.S. alone.

A nor’easter alone, named for the continuous and strong northeastern winds which blow in from the ocean ahead of the storm, can be a damaging and devastating storm. A nor’easter travels up the east coast along the Gulf Stream and can cause severe coastal flooding, coastal erosion, high winds, and blizzard conditions without combining with a hurricane.

The Superstorm made landfall at New Jersey around 8:00 pm on Monday, October 29, 2012 as a category one hurricane with maximum wind speeds of 81 miles per hour. The Superstorm brought high winds, heavy rainfall and snow, as well as storm surges to the Atlantic Coast. The storm surge, which reached 14 feet in lower Manhattan, was exacerbated by the full moon on Monday which caused a high tide.

The Superstorm could cost up to a total of $50 billion with $20 billion in property damages in addition to $10 to $30 billion in lost business. More than 16,000 airline flights were cancelled. By Thursday, November 1, power was restored to 5.8 million customers. Power is not expected to be fully restored to the majority of customers by November 11.

New York and New Jersey were devastated by the storm. The New York subway system was shut down for days and is still not running at full capacity due to unprecedented flooding. More than 80 homes were destroyed by a fire at Breezy Point in Queens.

Three nuclear reactors in the northeast shut down on October 29 due to issues related to the Superstorm. The shutdowns were precautionary and none of the incidents were considered serious. Specifically, the three shutdowns were due to a pole fallen onto electrical components, a lost connection between a power generators and circulation pumps disrupted by high water level.

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Previous Action

Hall and Boren Introduce Bill to Reauthorize NIDIS (09/12)
On September 21, 2012, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Representative Dan Boren (D-OK) introduced the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2012 (H.R. 6489) which would  reauthorize the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) through 2017.

NIDIS, first authorized in 2006, consolidates and distributes drought-related data across the federal government on an ongoing basis. The bill encourages further development of drought early warning systems. In addition, the bill calls for an analysis of the implementation of NIDIS to date and would identify monitoring, research and forecasting needs to amplify the predictive capability of early warning systems.

Short-Term Extension of the National Flood Insurance Program Approved (05/12)
On May 17, the House voted to approve the Senate’s proposal for a 60-day extension of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The program will be extended until July 31, 2012 as a result of the National Flood Insurance Program Extension Act (H.R. 5470) introduced by Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL). The version that passed the Senate included an amendment offered by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to eliminate subsidized rates for vacation homes. 

The contentious NFIP is currently more than $17 billion in debt, which many claim is due to subsidized rates that allow development in flood-prone areas. If the extension had not passed, the program would have lapsed which could have led to real estate closing delays and disorder in the housing market, similar to what occurred in four previous lapses of NFIP in 2010. The House passed a reform package for the program (H.R.1309) in July 2011 and is now encouraging the Senate to follow through with a five-year reauthorization and reform bill (S.1940). Proponents of the reform package say a long-term extension and overhaul are necessary for the housing market to recover. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has agreed to bring S. 1940 to the floor in June.

Japan Tsunami Debris Appears on U.S. Shores (05/12)
Debris from the tsunami which struck Japan in March, 2011 after the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake has begun to wash up on West Coast beaches. The debris is considered the first wave of an estimated five tons of debris that was pulled out to sea by the tsunami. The Japanese government estimates 3.5 tons of the heavier debris like cars and pieces of smashed buildings have sunk to the ocean floor.

U.S. state and federal officials are concerned about the environmental damagethat the more hazardous waste could cause. Additionally, buoyant debris has been deemed a safety hazard for passing ships by the Coast Guard. The possibility of radioactive debris from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor has raised health concerns. However, the debris that has been analyzed has shown no evidence of harmful levels of radioactivity.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program (MDP) has been tracking the debris as it crosses the Pacific. The MDP maps, identifies, removes, and prevents marine debris to protect the U.S. marine environment and ensure navigation safety. Report debris sightings or request coastal monitoring guides at

New Report Finds Flood Risk for Midwest Has Doubled (05/12)
The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released areport analyzing Midwestern precipitation records since the 1960s. The report, titled "Doubled Trouble: More Midwestern Extreme Storms," concludes that the recurrence interval and magnitude of precipitation events have significantly increased over the past century.

According to the study, there has been a 52 percent increase in the number of extreme storms per year between 2001 and 2010 compared to the 1961-1970 baseline period. The recurrence interval of extreme storms during the baseline period occurred on average once every 3.8 years, and now the average return period at a single location is 2.2 years. 
Increases in precipitation in the future will have a significant impact on Midwestern communities. In 2008, Midwestern floods cost states about $15.8 billion dollars from agricultural losses and housing damages. The RMCO suggests that Midwestern communities are eight to ten times more likely to experience flooding risk than the average Atlantic or Gulf coast community faces from hurricane damage.

The report recommends the Midwest increase its resiliency to extreme storms and floods by utilizing “green-infrastructure” techniques and enacting policies at the local, regional, and federal level that could reduce flood risk.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Celebrates 100 Year Anniversary (04/12)
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a new publication on April 5 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Hawaiian Volcanic Observatory (HVO). “The Story of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory – A Remarkable First 100 Years of Tracking Eruptions and Earthquakes” is available online.

HVO was founded in 1912 through the pioneering work of Frank Perret and Thomas Jaggar.  Initial funding for HVO was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory, and a group of Honolulu businessmen.  The USGS took over control of operations at HVO in 1947 and the observatory is part of the USGS Volcano Science Center.  The establishment of HVO, the first volcano observatory, paved the way for additional volcano observatories. These additional volcano observatories, all managed under the USGS Volcano Science Center, are the Alaska Volcano Observatory (Alaska and the Northern Mariana Islands), theCascades Volcano Observatory (Washington and Oregon), the California Volcano Observatory (California), and theYellowstone Volcano Observatory (Yellowstone National Park).  

HVO works closely with the University of Hawaii to understand volcanic processes at Hawaii and elsewhere. HVO works closely with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to ensure the safety and education of all visitors. 

Senators Concerned For NOAA Tsunami Program Funding (03/12)
A group of six senators led by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sent a letter on March 13, 2012 to Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) urging him not to entertain  proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Tsunami Program. A separate group led by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) wrote a letter to President Obama requesting emergency funds to track the estimated 1.5 million tons of debris, some of which are approaching the U.S. coast earlier than predicted, as a result of the March 2011 Japanese tsunami. 

Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), and Cantwell joined Feinstein in signing the letter to Inouye. The senators write, “Cutting funds for tsunami early warning systems jeopardize the safety and economic stability of communities in our states, so we ask that you maintain funding for NOAA’s tsunami program at Fiscal Year 2012 levels.”

Cantwell and Begich write, “We are deeply concerned that government agencies are not taking this risk seriously. The federal government has yet to dedicate adequate resources or create a solid coordinated action plan for tsunami debris response.” They request National Science Foundation RAPID funds for research and criticize the administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 budget request for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, which would be reduced by 25 percent and moved from the Office of Response and Restoration to the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

The American Geophysical Union, American Geosciences Institute, American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in partnership with the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council held a tsunami briefing on March 21. Eddie Bernard of NOAA, John Orcutt of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and John Schelling of the Washington State Emergency Management Division gave presentations to congressional staff on tsunami warning systems, preparedness, and resilience in the United States. A video of the briefing and copies of the speakers’ presentations can be found on the Hazards Caucus Alliance web site.

Anniversary of Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami and Fukushima Disaster (03/12)
The one year anniversary of the magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (March 11) in Japan that led to over 20,000 fatalities, over $100 billion in economic losses, over $250 billion in response and rebuilding costs, and the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, was acknowledged with ceremonies and reviews in March of 2012. Japan has shut down all of their remaining nuclear power plants, while Germany, Italy and Switzerland are reconsidering nuclear power. France, Canada and the United States remain committed to nuclear power and initiated reviews of nuclear safety. China is reviewing efforts to build nuclear power plants at a relatively brisk pace in a rapidly growing country.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) initiated an immediate review of safety at 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. and set-up the Near-Term Task Force which provided recommendations on lessons learned from Fukushima in their report, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century. On March 12, 2012, the NRC issued regulatory requirements in response to lessons learned from Fukushima.  Three orders require mitigation strategies, hardening containment vents and enhancing spent fuel pool instrumentation. More information is available from the NRC’s webpage, Actions in Response to the Japan Nuclear Accident.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report entitled U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima along with a press release in early March. UCS criticized the NRC for placing the first of 12 recommendations from the task force as the lowest priority. The first recommendation was to clarify government requirements for “beyond-design-basis” accidents, but the NRC is not moving forward on this. The industry has initiated their own plan to purchase more emergency equipment and place the equipment at multiple locations, so plants are better prepared for unexpected crises. UCS is concerned that the industry approach is not sufficient but without NRC guidance it will become the standard.

Two Reports Highlight 2011’s Expensive Natural Disasters (03/12)
Two reports were released in March 2012 that review the record-breaking costs of 2011’s global natural disasters. The Brookings Institution and the London School of Economics (LSE) released “The Year That Shook the Rich: A Review of Natural Disasters in 2011” and the Geneva Association released “Extreme Events and Insurance: 2011 annus horribilis.” The past year, 2011, was the most expensive year in terms of disaster losses in history, 75 percent higher than 2005, the second costliest year. Globally, the economic cost of disasters in 2011 was $380 billion.

The Brookings/LSE study found that while 2011 was the most expensive year in disaster losses, the number of disasters and number of people affected by them was below average in comparison with the previous decade. Furthermore, the report called for adjusting disaster plans and mitigation strategies due to a new and shifting “normal” as a result of climate change.

The Geneva Association, an international insurance think tank, compiled nine essays on risk adaptation, assessment, and management measures in developing physical and economic resilience to natural disasters. The first section of the report reviews the economic and insured losses of the 2011 natural disasters and describes the role insurance played in managing these extreme events. The report reviews the potential for public-private initiatives to cover extreme events and the development of catastrophe bonds and other risk-linked scenarios as sources of capital for insurance mechanisms. The second part of the report focuses on how insurance responded to specific events including the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Christchurch earthquake, and a series of devastating tornadoes in the central and southern United States.

AGI and Others Host Hazards Briefings on the Hill (03/12)
On March 29, congressional briefings about Earthquakes in the East and Tornadoes brought greater understanding of the science, engineering and emergency management needed to improve resilience to policymakers. The events were sponsored by AGI and other science groups and were organized in cooperation with the Congressional Hazards Caucus and the Hazards Caucus Alliance.

Speakers from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), University of Memphis, and the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC) participated in a morning briefing on the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the August 2011 Mineral, Virginia earthquake. The briefing was moderated by David Spears, the State Geologist of Virginia. Speakers from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, Joplin-Jasper County Emergency Management, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) presented at a lunch briefing on tornadoes. The briefing was moderated by Veronica Johnson, Broadcast Meteorologist for NBC4, Washington DC.  Video of the briefings and copies of the speakers’ presentations can be found on the briefing sites.

National Asbestos Awareness Week: April 1-7 (03/12)
On March 6, 2012 the Senate passed a Senate resolution (S.RES.389) introduced by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) declaring April 1-7, 2012 National Asbestos Awareness Week. 

National Asbestos Awareness Week is designed to keep the public informed of the dangers of exposure to asbestos fibers.  Danger exists from naturally occurring and manufactured asbestos.  Naturally occurring asbestos refers to several minerals that might be liberated from formations and once airborne can affect health if humans breathe in the fibrous materials. Exposure to manufactured asbestos may occur in non-renovated buildings and facilities built before 1975.  Prolonged exposure to asbestos can cause diseases such as mesothelioma.  Thousands of workers in the United States are exposed to asbestos on a daily basis.    

USGS Establishes California Volcano Observatory (02/12)
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) established the California Volcano Observatory (CalVO) on February 9 to manage the volcanic threats of potentially active volcanoes in California and some in Nevada. CalVO will be based in Menlo Park, California and will assume the monitoring responsibilities of the former Long Valley Observatory while relieving the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington of its monitoring responsibilities for Northern California.

CalVO will monitor active and potentially active areas including Mount Shasta, Medicine Lake Volcano, Clear Lake Volcanic Field, Lassen Volcanic Center, Long Valley Caldera, Mono-Inyo Craters, Salton Buttes, Coso Volcanic Field, the Ubehebe Craters in California and Soda Lakes in central Nevada. Under the Robert Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 93-288), the USGS has the federal responsibility to issue warnings of potential volcanic disasters. The USGS operates four volcano observatories in addition to CalVO – the Cascades Volcano Observatory, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, the Alaska Volcano Observatory, and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. The establishment of CalVO is part of the USGS’s efforts to build the National Volcano Early Warning System.

EarthScope Transportable Array Seismic Station Reaches Florida (02/12)
The National Science Foundation-funded EarthScope project includes a dense array of seismic instruments that are moving across the country. EarthScope announced on February 15, that its array station 457A is the first to reach the eastern coast of the United States.

EarthScope has been implementing seismic stations in 43 mile grids across the nation since starting on the West Coast in 2004.  Data from the seismic stations is used to create three dimensional models of the Earth’s crust and upper most mantle.  These models provide a better understanding of the subsurface geologic structure of the United States. Each seismic station is online for two years and data collected by EarthScope instruments has been collected from 1,350 locations. Another 400 are expected to join Florida’s “457A” on the eastern coast and will be on line by 2013. Once the array is done along the East Coast the instruments will be sent to Alaska to survey the geologic structure beneath the largest state in the union.

National Flood Insurance Program Receives Another Short Term Extension (12/11)
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) received another short-term extension in the December 23 omnibus, or the Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R. 2055), which authorized the bankrupt program to keep running until May 31, 2012. NFIP has been relying on short-term extensions for the past few years though attempts to pass a long-term authorization have been introduced. As the deadline for passing an extension came closer to the program’s expiration at midnight of December 23, 2011, members of Congress began introducing bills to extend the program. Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced a bill (S. 1958) to extend NFIP to May 31, 2012 which passed the Senate quickly by voice vote. Senator Vitter had attempted to pass a bill (S. 1864) extending the NFIP to September 30, 2012 but did not gather any cosponsors. Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) introduced the House version (H.R. 3628) of the Senate bill on December 8 but the House took no action. Ultimately, Vitter’s language to extend NFIP until May 31, 2012 was included in H.R. 2055 and passed on December 23.

Record Number of Disasters in 2011 (12/11)
The National Climatic Data Center has counted at least a dozen weather and climate disasters that exceeded $1 billion in damages per event in the United States in 2011. The dozen include the Groundhog Day blizzard through the central and eastern U.S., six severe weather/tornado outbreaks, two major floods on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, wildfires in the Southwest and an ongoing drought in the South. The 12 events caused 646 fatalities and about $52 billion in estimated damages. Other disasters, such as Tropical Storm Lee and the Halloween snowstorm on the East Coast may also exceed $1 billion in total damages once all of the claims are completed leading to more than a dozen greater than $1 billion disasters in 2011. The previous record was eight high cost disasters in 2008 and 2011 is likely to be the third costliest weather damage year on record behind 2005, which was dominated by Hurricane Katrina, and 1988, which was dominated by extreme drought and a heat wave.

One positive note to these record-breaking disasters was a more organized and responsive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to handle the preparation and recovery. In a Washington Post year-end blog about “Some Things the Government Got Right”, the blogger notes that FEMA was swift and responsible in dealing with multiple disasters throughout the year and the National Weather Service (NWS) did a good job of forecasting weather threats to help people prepare.

Disastrous weather and climate events around the world set records for fatalities and costs with the ongoing drought in Africa, floods in Australia and extreme weather events in Asia causing the most damage. Such ominous records are attributed to weather extremes and unwise development in high risk areas.

The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan was the most devastating event of 2011 (more than 15,000 fatalities and an estimated $235 billion in losses) and reminded the world that not all disasters are related to weather. The intensity of the earthquake and tsunami confirmed that developed countries are not immune to considerable losses. Indeed developed countries face higher economic losses and more complex system failures that can have a greater global impact. The failures at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant are a compelling example of a complex system failure and the need for planning and mitigation of extreme events affecting complex systems.

The Mineral, Virginia magnitude 5.8 earthquake in August became the first earthquake to cause an automatic shutdown of a nuclear power plant in the world. The North Anna Nuclear power plant near Mineral exceeded the shaking intensity it had been designed for and automatically shut down when the 5.8 shaker rolled through. There was significant damage to buildings in Mineral and nearby areas but no fatalities. The earthquake was widely felt throughout the East Coast and into the Midwest. Many people reacted incorrectly by running outside or putting themselves needlessly in harm’s way, indicating that earthquake preparedness and response should be improved throughout the U.S.

The damaging earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand were forgotten as the Tohoku earthquake’s impacts grew, however, the multiple events starting in 2010 and continuing in 2011 have devastated the city and the country. The magnitude 6.3 earthquake in February caused 181 fatalities and about $30 billion in damage, making it the second deadliest and costliest disaster in New Zealand. The New Zealand Earthquake Commission requires homeowners to have earthquake insurance and residents contribute $NZ 50 per year toward an earthquake fund (about $NZ 5 billion before the earthquakes). About 4,500 claims have been filed for the $NZ 100,000 for property and $NZ 20,000 for contents that the fund provides. It is unclear whether the earthquake fund will have enough to cover insured damages, especially as more earthquakes rocked the city after February of 2011 causing more damage.

National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program Reauthorization (11/11)
On December 1, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology passed the National Hazard Risk Reduction Act of 2011 (H.R. 3479) after it was passed and amended by the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation on November 15. The bill reauthorizes the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) through fiscal year (FY) 2014. NEHRP is a long-standing cooperative program involving the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to understand, monitor and analyze earthquakes and mitigate earthquake risks.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed a Senate version of the measure, the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act (S. 646), on May 5, 2011. The next step for the two different measures is a possible vote by the full Senate and the full House. If both measures are approved then the chambers will need to meet in conference to work out the differences between the bills. The Senate bill provides higher authorizations that match with the needs of the programs and previous authorizations, while the House bill provides lower authorizations that may not be adequate to improve resiliency and may ending up costing the nation more in future losses.

During the subcommittee markup on November 15, the bill passed on a party line vote after the subcommittee debated and voted on a series of amendments. Subcommittee Democrats attempted to pass Representative Donna Edwards’ (D-MD) amendment to raise the authorization levels for the four agencies to the levels in the Senate version of the bill, but the amendment was not agreed to. Edwards argued that the authorization levels in her amendment were equal to the reauthorization bill (H.R. 3820) overwhelmingly agreed to in the 111th Congress by the House in a 355-50 vote. The subcommittee passed Representative Judy Biggert’s (R-IL) amendment by voice vote. Biggert’s amendment adds supporting public outreach and education to the activities of NEHRP, eliminates mandatory use of the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), requires the NEHRP advisory committee to terminate after five years, tasks the advisory committee to assess trends in social sciences, and adds language to ensure coordination of hazard related research and development activities across the federal government. Chairman Ralph Hall’s (R-TX) amendment reinstated USGS as the lead agency for post-earthquake investigations and transferred $3.4 million in authorization from NIST to USGS.

Chairman Hall and subcommittee Republicans argued that because the House Committee on Natural Resources shares jurisdiction of the USGS with the Science Committee, the Natural Resources Committee may not agree with any changes to the USGS’s current responsibilities or authorizations and could delay the passage of the bill. The reauthorization of NEHRP in 1990 (P.L. 101-614) initially gave responsibility of lead post-earthquake investigations to the USGS but S. 646, the current Senate NEHRP reauthorization bill, would transfer lead post-earthquake investigations responsibilities to NIST as recommended by a 2008 NEHRP Advisory Committee report.

The full committee met on December 1 to further discuss H.R. 3479. The bill was amended and passed on a party line vote of 21-12. Representative Biggert’s amendment, agreed to by voice vote, requires NEHRP to include in their annual report a description of the current state of post –earthquake investigations by the USGS and a description of the contribution of  National Laboratories to natural hazard risk reduction. Representative Hansen Clarke’s (D-MI) amendment to extend public outreach and education to include households with special needs individuals was passed as was Representative Ben Ray Lujan’s (D-NM) amendment to task NIST with researching fire hazards at the wildland-urban interface. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Hazards Caucus, offered an amendment to transfer lead post-earthquake investigation responsibilities from the USGS to NIST as was debated at the subcommittee markup. Chairman Hall told Lofgren that Biggert had tasked NEHRP in her amendment to include in its annual report a description of the USGS’s post-earthquake investigations as a way for the committee to better understand the issue before transferring responsibilities or authorizations. The committee Republicans voted together against the amendment and defeated it 11-20. Representatives Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Edwards attempted to raise the authorization levels with two different amendments. Woolsey’s amendment would have increased NEHRP authorizations by $209.6 million over the three year authorization and Edwards’ amendment would have increased NEHRP authorizations by $177.4 million over the three year authorization. Woolsey argued that her authorization levels were written in 2004 by House Republicans and agreed to by President Bush while Edwards pointed out that her amendment’s authorization levels were overwhelmingly agreed to in the 111th Congress by the House of Representatives. Both representatives also noted that the authorization levels they were requesting would provide the necessary funds to implement the essential programs at the four federal agencies. Without sufficient authorization levels, there was concern that resiliency would suffer and future losses would be greater. Neither amendment was adopted and the bill went on to pass on a party line vote of 21-12.

Senate Committee Discusses NOAA's Potential Satellite Data Gap (11/11)
On November 16, 2011, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing to discuss two potential satellite data gaps and the need for continued innovation in weather forecasting and prediction. Witnesses included Mary Glackin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Todd J. Zinser, the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce, David Trimble of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Real Admiral Cari Thomas of the U.S. Coast Guard, and three individuals from the private sector.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), jointly operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Defense (DOD), was initially designed as a means for cost savings by combining military and civil remote-sensing efforts. Cost-savings were not achieved, and in 2010 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy dismantled NPOESS and replaced it with the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), managed by NOAA and NASA, and the Defense Weather Satellite System managed by the military. Both systems will be launched on the same bus, so continued coordination is essential.  The NPOESS Preparatory Program (NPP) was launched in October 2011 as an effort to bridge the gaps between the two systems; however, NOAA is aware of a potential “data gap” in 2016 due to technological setbacks transitioning NPOESS to JPSS.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced a report in September 2011, Polar Satellites: Agencies Need to Address Potential Gaps in Weather and Climate Data Coverage, which examined NOAA’s current satellite programs and its efforts to improve its technological innovation and prevent such a data gap. On November 17, 2011, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for 2012 (P.L. 112-55) was passed into law, providing $924 million to continue development of NOAA's JPSS in 2012.

FEMA Seeks Public Comment to Improve Emergency Management System (11/11)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reaching out to state, local, and tribal governments, and to all members of the public to receive input on ways to improve the emergency management system. The FEMA Think Tank, which comprises an online forum and monthly conference call discussions, will help facilitate these conversations and encourage further discussion for exploring best practices and generating new ideas. The monthly calls will begin in December of 2011.

Next Steps for Nuclear Power After Earthquakes (11/11)
The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), a U.S.-based think tank, issued a press release with a report (Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station) about the first four days of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the March 11, 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The report was prepared for the U.S. nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the U.S. Congress. The tsunami was larger than expected and may have been enhanced by the displacement of splay faults on the sedimentary wedge above the subduction zone earthquake. The huge tsunami led to at least one 46-foot high wave rushing over the breakwater barrier (18 to 30 feet high) at the Daiichi nuclear power plant. The tsunami killed two workers, flooded emergency generators and disabled water intakes needed to cool the reactors. Plant workers bravely tried to avert further catastrophe without electricity, without information about the status of the reactors and without any outside help. They had to deal with flooding, structural damage, aftershocks, hydrogen gas explosions and radiation releases while they tried to cool the reactors and safely shutdown systems. Three important lessons learned include: 1. Earthquakes and tsunamis can be larger than previously thought and can combine across segments to produce higher intensity events, 2. Emergency electricity backups for nuclear power plants need to be more resilient and 3. Hydrogen gas pressure buildup in older nuclear reactors remains a considerable known concern.

On November 30, the Associated Press reported that a simulation by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) of the damage in nuclear reactor number 1 at Fukushima Daiichi shows more damage than previously thought. The simulation suggests the melted fuel rods bore through much of the primary containment (i.e. concrete and steel bottom) and almost leaked out.

Back in the United States, the NRC authorized the North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa, Virginia to initiate a restart of its two reactors on November 14, 2011. The reactors automatically shut off due to the magnitude 5.8 Virginia earthquake that struck about 11 miles from the plant on August 23 (see Virginia Earthquake – NRC Actions for more information). The shaking was greater than the plant was designed to handle. Dominion, the power company that owns and operates the facility, is spending more than $21 million to inspect and assess the damage. So far, even though the shaking intensity was about two times greater than expected, the damage is confined to minor cracks and damaged bolts. Massive spent fuel storage containers did shift by as much as one inch as the earth moved beneath them.  Dominion is upgrading seismic monitoring equipment for the reactors and the dry cask spent fuel facility. The NRC is in the midst of a review of nuclear power plants and has called for U.S. plants to upgrade their seismic risk analyses.

Communities and the public in the U.S. and abroad remain wary of nuclear power plants. On November 29, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied a state attempt to halt the relicensing process for the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts based on the accident in Japan.

Earthquakes and Consequences (10/11)
A magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Eastern Turkey caused extensive damage and fatalities, particularly in the cities of Van and Ercis in Turkey.  A technical summary is available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Much smaller magnitude events rattled San Francisco, Oregon, southern Texas and Oklahoma City during October with little reported damage.

On October 20, about 8.6 million people, mostly in California, participated in the 2011 Great California Shakeoutearthquake drill. The purpose of the drill is to help people and communities to prepare for a large magnitude event in seismically active regions. The USGS, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Science Foundation worked with state agencies and others to organize a successful outreach, awareness and practice scenario.

The North Anna nuclear power plant remains shutdown after it automatically shut down during the magnitude 5.8 Virginia earthquake on August 23, 2011. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not approved a restart, even though the utility company Dominion Power indicates the plant is ready. The NRC is concerned that the earthquake shaking exceeded the design limits and wants further inspection of the plant.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan remains in a tenuous state of containment and clean-up after the destruction caused by the March 11, 2011, magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The reactors and other areas remain off limits to humans because of the risk of high radiation exposure so robots and other machinery is being used to build containment around high risk areas. Measurements of radioactivity in Japan by various groups and individuals have yielded a range of high to low levels of contamination within and outside the evacuation zone. These reports have raised concerns about safety outside the evacuation zone. On October 21, 2011 the Norwegian Institute for Air Research published a report that indicates the radioactive emissions were twice as high as indicated by the Japanese government. These conclusions are based on about 1,000 measurements in Japan, Europe and the United States. NOVA has posted a one-hour documentary, Surviving the Tsunami, which gives eyewitness accounts of tsunami survivors and discusses some new understanding about the earthquake mechanisms (i.e. subduction zone displacement plus movement of splay faults in the overlying sedimentary wedge) that led to such a destructive tsunami.

Last, but not least, the Seismological Society of America has published a special volume of Seismological Research Letters with 19 papers about the February 22, 2011 magnitude 6.2 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand. This event devastated Christchurch, but has been forgotten beyond New Zealand in the face of subsequent events. The volume provides important data and analyses while providing greater understanding of earthquake processes, earthquake engineering and lessons for improving resilience and reducing losses.

President Declares September National Preparedness Month (08/11)
In a proclamation dated August 31, President Barack Obama declared September to be National Preparedness Month. The president pointed out how natural disasters had particularly “tested our response ability” in 2011 and that this month marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The proclamation calls for Americans to “recognize the importance of preparedness” and to work together to increase national security, resilience, and readiness.

On September 7, 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will hold a showcase of NSF-funded research on hazards on Capitol Hill. The event will take place from 10:30 AM to 2:00 PM in Hart Senate Office Building Room 902.

Biological Hazards Bill Passes Energy and Commerce Committee (08/11)
On July 28, the Energy and Commerce committee passed on a voice vote the bipartisan Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2011 (H.R. 2405) which reauthorizes programs within the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct research, development, procurement, and stockpiling of medical countermeasures (MCM) to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. The bill would authorize $415 million annually from 2012-2016 for advanced biomedical research and $2.8 billion for the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund. Bioshield is a President George W. Bush-era program that procures and stockpiles MCMs. The bill was introduced by Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI) and is cosponsored by Representatives Gene Green (D-TX), Sue Myrick (R-NC), and Michael Burgess (R-TX).

Schumer Floating Legislation on Mandatory Background Checks (08/11)
To prevent security threats against infrastructure facilities, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) will introduce legislation to run background checks on employees at power plants, water treatment plants, and other critical infrastructure. Brought to light by a July 2011 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report, the upcoming legislation would increase the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the employment process. The DHS report warned that extremists are likely to launch physical and cyber attacks from the inside of a major U.S. utility facility. The DHS report cited “high confidence in [DHS’s] judgment that insiders and their actions pose a significant threat to the infrastructure and information systems of U.S. utilities.” If Schumer’s legislation is passed, background investigations will be run against the FBI’s criminal history record and the Interstate Identification Index, a system that contains fingerprint records from U.S. states, territories, and federal and international criminal justice agencies.

Hurricane Irene hits East Coast; Tenth $1 Billion Natural Disaster in 2011 (08/11)
On the morning of August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene made landfall in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and continued up the Eastern Seaboard causing more than $7 billion in total losses according to early estimates making it the tenth natural disaster costing over $1 billion in 2011. Irene is the first hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008 and it is the first hurricane to affect New York City since Hurricane Gloria in 1985. About 2.3 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders and 40 fatalities were attributed to the storm. Vermont was particularly affected by the hurricane where many roads and bridges were destroyed by flooding. On August 29, Irene dissipated into a tropical storm and continued moving in a northeast direction towards Iceland.

Though the hurricane caused extensive damage, its track fell within the cone modeled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Hurricane Center on Tuesday, August 23. Hurricane track and intensity prediction models have been improved through advancements in supercomputing and satellite observations. NOAA’s National Weather Service’s homepage had more than 51 million hits per hour as people sought information about how the hurricane might affect where they live.

The U.S. Geological Survey deployed 260 storm surge sensors along the East coast to measure the height and intensity of the storm surge to help determine the amount of storm surge for coastal communities and to improve models to forecast future storm surges.

Update on Two Earthquakes in Seismically Quiet States in August (08/11)
Within 24 hours of each other, two relatively strong earthquakes occurred in Colorado and Virginia on August 22 and 23 respectively. While many earthquakes occur around the world every day, Colorado and Virginia are not known for profuse seismicity. Both of these earthquakes were the largest natural earthquakes seen in their respective areas in over 100 years. In the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Hazards program is responsible for earthquake monitoring and notifications to responders and the public.

At about 11:46 p.m. local time on August 22, a centroid moment magnitude (Mw) 5.3 earthquake occurred nine miles west-southwest of Trinidad, Colorado near the border of New Mexico. Based on over 1700 responses to the USGS Did You Feel It web site, shaking was felt as far north as Fort Collins, Colorado and as far south as Las Cruces, New Mexico. The event was the largest natural earthquake in the state since an estimated magnitude 6.5 earthquake in 1882 in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. The area around Trinidad experienced a magnitude 4.6 event in 1966, two earthquake swarms in 1973 and 2001 and a Mw 5.0 earthquake in 2005. The 2011 event was preceded by a swarm of smaller magnitude earthquakes and is in a similar region as the 2001 swarm.  Concerns have been raised about whether some of the past events could be attributed to the development and impoundment of the reservoir (Lake Trinidad) in the 1970s or to waste water disposal related to coal-bed methane gas drilling more recently. An investigation of the 2001 swarm by the USGS suggests that waste water disposal is unlikely to have induced the seismic swarm. Early analyses of the 2011 swarm suggests the 2001 and 2011 swarm are associated with east-west extension on a previously unmapped fault that is similar to the extension of the Rio Grande rift to the west.

Across the continent, at 1:51 pm local time on August 23, a Mw 5.8 earthquake occurred about five miles south-southwest of Mineral, Virginia and about 84 miles southwest of Washington, DC.  Originating at about 6 kilometers depth, the relatively shallow earthquake occurred as reverse faulting on a northeast striking plane within the Central Virginia Seismic Zone. This zone has been the source of small to sometimes damaging earthquakes since at least 1774.  The earthquake is the largest recorded in the state with seismic instruments. The largest historic event, with an estimated magnitude of 5.9 (5.6 in a 2006 publication), occurred near Pearisburg, Virginia in 1897, much further to the west in the Appalachian Mountains, in what is called the Giles County Seismic Zone (see the USGS page on Virginia Earthquake History for more details).

The 2011 earthquake caused significant structural damage near the epicenter and minor damage further away. Two reactors at the North Anna Nuclear Plant, operated by Dominion Resources and located near Mineral, were taken offline because the earthquake triggered an automatic shutdown.  Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials have begun to inspect the 1,806 Megawatt facility and it will remain shut down until the inspection is complete. Twelve other nuclear power plants along the East coast that were shaken by the earthquake declared “Unusual Events” and were inspected for damage, but none needed to be taken offline, according to the NRC.

The earthquake was felt as far north as Canada and as far south as Alabama according to more than 130,000 responses on the USGS Did You Feel It web site. While earthquakes in the East are less frequent than along the seismically active West coast, they are often felt over a larger area due to the efficiency of wave propagation through the cold and dense North American craton as well as attenuation of wave energy by less consolidated sediments that cover the coastal plain.

What generated the earthquake in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone is unknown. The zone is diffuse, the earthquakes do not line up along easily discernable fault lines and the earthquakes have different directions of motions. Current information suggests the earthquake occurred on a small segment of an ancient, buried fault (possibly related to a boundary between two different terranes added to the continent more than 300 million years ago), is associated with crustal rebound of the eroding Appalachians or was initiated by regional compression caused by the distant push of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (the plate boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates).

The National Science Foundation-funded EarthScope project includes a dense array of seismic instruments that are moving across the country. The array has just crossed the Mississippi River and has not been deployed in Virginia yet. The array allows geoscientists to gather detailed information about earthquakes and to develop a much better understanding of the structure beneath the surface. The array caught the Virginia earthquake as the seismic waves moved across the country and will help geoscientists better understand the earthquake.  With more time, more observations and the movement of the array further east, geoscientists will develop a far better understanding of what is going on beneath the surface in Virginia and elsewhere. The knowledge gained from EarthScope will immensely improve our understanding of the ground beneath our feet and why earthquakes occur when and where they do.

The reactions of people in the East to the Virginia earthquake were mixed. Based on news reports, posted videos and our own experiences at the American Geological Institute's headquarters in Alexandria, Virigina, some people stood in hazardous areas or ran out of buildings during the earthquake. Although many people in the East have little experience with earthquakes and little confidence in the earthquake resistance of structures, the safest action to take during an earthquake is to drop, cover and hold. FEMA Earthquake provides information on what to do before, during and after an earthquake. USGS and its partners for the Great California Shakeout have some excellent videos on earthquake preparedness and response, especially Preparedness Now which was prepared with the Art Center College of Design.

Earthquake in Virginia on August 23, 2011 Preliminary Magnitude 5.8 (08/11)
On August 23, 2011, at approximately 1:51 PM, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook the east coast from an epicenter 5 miles south-southwest from Mineral, Virginia. A preliminary summary posted by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the quake was felt widely from New York to Georgia. Further information will follow as more data and details emerge.CNN is updating local infrastructure changes and EARTH magazine posted a news story about the earthquake details.

A photograph of a wall at AGI headquarters in Alexandria Virginia
showing the portraits of past AGI presidents skewed by motion of
magnitude 5.8 earthquake on August 23, 2011




National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorized in House (07/11)
On July 12, 2011 the House of Representatives passed, on a 406-22 vote, the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 1309). This legislation extends the National Flood Insurance Program until September 2016. Currently, the program is almost $18 billion in debt and was set to expire on September 30, 2011. An amendment, which limits the percentage of policies the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can directly manage to 10 percent, was approved by the House. Under this amendment, FEMA would have the authority to refuse insurance policy transfers from private insurance companies. The bill must now past the Senate to become law. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

Flood Insurance Reauthorization Passes Finance Committee (05/11)
Representative Judy Biggert’s (R-IL) legislation, the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 1309), to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for five years has unanimously passed the House Financial Services Committee and awaits consideration of the full House. NFIP, a component of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was first authorized in 1968 and makes federally backed flood insurance available to business owners, homeowners, and renters in floodplain communities. The program is responsible for identifying and mapping the nation’s floodplains and the Federal Emergency Management Administration is in the midst of revising flood plain maps across the country.

Tornadoes: Large Number Spawned in U.S. (05/11)
The year 2011 has seen a record number of tornadoes spawned throughout the continental United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA; tornado information), about 1,314 tornadoes have been confirmed at the end of May (compare to the average number over the past decade of 1,274 per year). There were 875 tornadoes in April, 2011, which is a new record for a month (the previous monthly record was 524 in May 2003, the previous April record was 267 in 1974 and the average number per month over the past decade is 161). At least four tornadoes in 2011 have been rated at a maximum intensity of EF-5, using the Enhanced-Fujita scale. An EF-5 indicates wind speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour, which is based on damage estimates as there is no feasible way to measure maximum wind speeds during tornadoes.

On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 that was about 0.75 miles wide and had a track of about six miles long hit the city of Joplin (population: 49,024) in Missouri. The tornado caused 142 fatalities, 750 injuries and 29 unaccounted for as of May 30, 2011. According to NOAA, this tornado is the deadliest since modern recordkeeping began in 1950 and the eighth deadliest in the United States. The deadliest tornado on record in the U.S. was on March 18, 1925.  The “Tri-State Tornado” (MO, IL, and IN) had a 291-mile path, was rated F5, and caused 695 fatalities.  

The National Weather Service (NWS) Storm Prediction Center (SPC) highlighted southwest Missouri for the potential for severe weather several days before Sunday's storm. SPC issued a tornado watch more than four hours in advance of the tornado touching down. The NWS Springfield forecast office issued a tornado warning with a lead time of 24 minutes for Joplin at 5:17 p.m. (local time). 

The high number of fatalities and injuries in Joplin has been attributed to a direct hit of a high intensity tornado on a densely populated area and the tornado hitting on a late Sunday afternoon when more people were out. Other factors may include complacency or ignoring severe weather warnings, taking the wrong actions for protection and perhaps even the increasing use of mobile homes that offer little to no protection and can even inflict more damage during an EF-5 tornado.

Engineering can mitigate some losses. Building a safe room in a home or next to a home can save lives and limit injuries. More interior walls for larger structures, more secure connections and better windows can reduce damage and loss. Monolithic domes and related structures may also offer protection and such structures have been built as homes, buildings and emergency shelters, in some cases with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The National Storm Shelter Association continues to work on standards and certifications for storm-resistant building structures in concert with FEMA and other federal agencies. Engineering research continues at private companies, universities and federal agencies. Texas Tech’s Wind Science and Engineering Research Center receives federal support for research from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy among a host of cutting edge university research centers. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) operates a National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program within the Disaster Resilient Structures and Communities Portal, but the program has received little support from Congress and has limited funding to conduct research on wind hazard mitigation. According to NIST, windstorm damage losses exceed $10 billion annually in the United States and the NIST Wind Engineering main page lists steps that could be taken to reduce costs and damage. The program would be re-authorized in the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2011 (introduced in the Senate, S.646 by California Senators Boxer and Feinstein and introduced in the House, H.R. 1379 by Congressman David Wu (D-OR)).

Meteorological and climatic conditions are being considered to explain the large number and high intensity of tornadoes in the first half of 2011, but also to understand the origin of tornadoes and improve warnings. Climate change caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions cannot be directly connected to tornado activity because tornadoes are too small in scale and time to be considered in climate models or data correlations. Tornadoes form in thunderstorms and thunderstorms need moisture, instability and wind shear. While climate change may increase instability and moisture on broad scales, it may also decrease wind shear, so not only are the scales different but the parameters conducive to tornado formation may offset each other if climate change has an effect.

Oscillations in warm (El Nino events) and cold (La Nina events) water patterns in the equatorial Pacific Ocean show a weak association with tornado activity in the continental U.S.  There have been more tornadoes at the end of a La Nina cycle in some years, but there is limited physical understanding of the correlation. Some meteorologists suggest that the end of a La Nina moves the jet stream further north over the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes leading to more thunderstorms conducive to tornado formation to the south. Again the spatial and temporal scales of El Nino Southern Oscillations (ENSO) are much larger than the scales of tornadoes making it difficult to correlate the physical processes.

In addition recordkeeping and observations of tornadoes has only become more systematic since about the 1950s so there is not enough data to establish any statistically significant trends that could be linked to physical processes. Improved understanding of the origin of tornadoes, trends in tornado activity and other factors are sorely needed to improve weather forecasts and reduce false alarms (it should be noted that the term false alarm is a bit of misnomer as these alarms are actually warnings that a tornado could form). False alarms account for about 70 percent of warnings and likely contribute to people ignoring or being complacent about warnings.

NOAA has a useful page on severe weather that describes tornadoes, other severe weather effects and links to other NOAA services. NOAA’s National Severe Storm Laboratory has a tutorial on tornadoes and what to do to for protection in a tornado warning. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has a FAQ about all aspects of tornadoes.

President Signs Policy Directive on Preparedness (4/11)
On March 30, 2011, President Obama signed a Presidential Policy Directive on Preparedness (PPD-8) that calls for strengthening the security and resiliency of the United States through systematic preparedness for risks. The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with providing a national preparedness goal document within 180 days of the directive.

Hazards Legislation Moves Through Congress (4/11)
Representative David Wu (D-OR) has reintroduced the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 1379) that would reauthorize the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) through fiscal year 2015, support the National Windstorm Risk Reduction Program and establish an interagency hazards committee. NEHRP is a long-standing cooperative program involving the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to understand earthquakes, monitor and analyze earthquakes and prepare and mitigate earthquake risks. The bill is identical to S. 646 introduced by California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein last month. 

On April 7, the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, of which Wu is Ranking Member, held a hearing to review efforts supporting the development of earthquake hazard reduction measures. Director of NEHRP, Dr. Jack Hayes told the committee, “our challenge is to see that the new knowledge and experience gained through NEHRP continues to be developed and applied to domestic practices and policies that foster a more resilient American society.” Hayes testified alongside Jim Mullen, President of the National Emergency Management Association; Chris Poland, Chairman of the NEHRP Advisory Committee; and Vicki McConnell, Oregon State Geologist.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on disaster preparedness on May 3, which focused on the recent damaging tornadoes in Alabama and elsewhere with some coverage of earthquake hazards related to nuclear power plants in California. On May 5, the committee marked up and approved the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act (S.646). The Hurricane Research Initiative (S.692) was also considered and approved in the form of an amendment.

Earthquake Prediction Council Releases Report on New Madrid (4/11)
The National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, a federal advisory committee established in legislation authorizing the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, has issued a new report that confirms the threat of significant seismic hazards in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. The New Madrid Seismic Zone encompasses parts of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri. Three strong earthquakes struck the area in 1811-1812 and though no significant seismic activity has occurred since, the council still concludes the fault zone “is at significant risk for damaging earthquakes that must be accounted for in urban planning and development.” More information on the council and the report can be found on the council’s website

Congressional Response to Tohoku Earthquake: NEHRP/Tsunami Bills (03/11)
The Tohoku earthquake, devastating Honshu tsunami and ongoing nuclear power plant crisis in Japan has brought congressional attention to earthquake hazards. Californian Senators Boxer and Feinstein introduced two measures after the tragic events. The Earthquake Insurance Affordability Act of 2011 (S.637) would establish guarantees for debt related to state catastrophe insurance programs that cover earthquakes. The Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2011 (S.646) would re-authorize the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program. NEHRP is a long-standing cooperative program involving the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to understand earthquakes, monitor and analyze earthquakes and prepare and mitigate earthquake risks.

Over in the House, Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN), John Duncan (R-TN), David Wu (D-OR) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI)  introduced Critical Infrastructure Earthquake Preparedness Act of 2011 (H.R. 1132). The measure would ask FEMA to establish a grant program to improve the ability of trauma center hospitals and airports to withstand earthquakes.

In the aftermath of Japan’s crippling tsunami, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi reintroduced legislation that would require NOAA to build and operate a tsunami center in Puerto Rico (H.R. 1100). Currently, NOAA operates two centers on the Pacific Ocean. One is located at Ewa Beach, Hawaii and the other is in Palmer, Alaska. Though NOAA has already begun a “phased” approach to establishing a tsunami center for the Caribbean and East Coast in Puerto Rico, this legislation would require a Caribbean Tsunami Warning Center by amending the 2005 Tsunami Warning and Education Act (PL 109-424).

Administration’s Response to Tohoku Earthquake (03/11)
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit about 80 miles (129 kilometers [km]) from the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan at a depth of 19.9 miles (32 km). The earthquake resulted from thrust faulting on the subduction zone plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. Modeling indicates the fault moved upwards about 30 to 40 meters and slipped over an area of about 300 km by 150 km. The earthquake was preceded by magnitude 6s and 7s foreshocks and followed by dozens of large magnitude aftershocks. Large earthquakes and tsunamis have been recorded in the area in 869, 1611, 1896 and 1933. More information about the Tohoku earthquake is available from the U.S. Geological Survey, which is the lead federal agency for earthquakes in the United States. The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) is monitoring the response of the built environment to the earthquake and tsunami. A PDF presentation of a March 20 initial assessment in Japan suggests the built environment did well in the earthquake.

The Tohoku earthquake generated a tsunami that hit the coast of Japan within minutes and moved across the Pacific Ocean to U.S. coastlines in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska within hours. The waves that hit Sendai Japan and other coastal communities may have been as large as 37.9 meters (114 feet) in height. The tsunami led to the greatest devastation in northern Japan. The waves overcame a 207 foot breakwater and many 30 to 10 foot high seawalls along the coast. While these structures may have muted the impact, the tsunami waves are likely to be the main causes for the estimated 28,000 fatalities, 250,000 displaced, and $300 billion in damages in Japan. Damage in the U.S. from the tsunami was confined to harbors and coastal areas with $30 million in damage in Hawaii, $7 million in Oregon and one fatality and $50 million in damage in California. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) detected the tsunami, modeled its path, sent out warnings and recorded its movement across the ocean. More information about the Honshu tsunami is available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is the lead federal agency for tsunamis in the United States.

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered massive failures at its six nuclear reactors. Initially the loss of power caused active reactors and spent fuel housed in cooling ponds to overheat, leading to over pressurization, hydrogen gas explosions, loss of cooling water, radiation leaks and extensive additional damage to power and cooling systems. As of April 5, reactors remain in a critical state, with responders forced to add more water to keep the fuel cooled at the same time as radiated water is leaking from identified and un-identified areas.

President Obama offered condolences and help to Japan immediately after the earthquake and tsunami. The U.S. military based in Okinawa, Japan started helping with rescue and response efforts while nuclear power plant experts from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Department of Energy and other agencies provided help, starting with 11 NRC experts dispatched on March 14. As the nuclear reactor crisis worsened, the President increased U.S. efforts, sending more experts and a significant amount of equipment to try to contain the nuclear reactor crisis.

The U.S. called for a 50 mile radius evacuation zone for U.S. citizens located around the Daiichi plant on March 16, which is far larger than the evacuation zone instituted by the Japanese. The President also requested that the NRC review safety and preparedness for disasters at all nuclear power plants in the United States. On March 21, the NRC established a task force that will review safety at U.S. nuclear power plants. NRC provided an update on its efforts in an April 4 press release.

UN, Worldbank Outline Efficient Paths to Disaster Preparedness (11/10)
Climate change could increase monetary losses from natural disasters by as much as $68 billion, according to a report, Natural Hazards Unnatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention, released by the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank. The majority of these losses are described as preventable, including a portion of the $185 billion expected from non-climate related disasters. The 250-page report provides case studies of effective disaster planning, arguing that effective disaster preparedness can be achieved at minimal or no additional cost. The report advocates for more information on hazards, such as maps of floodplains and active faults, reduction in deforestation, and increased public transportation.

USGS Chairs International Charter for Space and Major Disasters (10/10)
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) held a board meeting of the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters in Washington, DC, from October 4 to 7. The Charter is a global collaboration of public and private entities that operate satellites and provide free and open access to data in the assistance of disaster response. During the Gulf oil spill, for example, the European Space Agency deployed its ENVISAT to image the extent and spread of the spill. The Charter already includes agencies from the U.S., India, China, Europe, and six other nations. The addition of agencies from Russia, Germany, Brazil, and South Korea was discussed at the meeting. Russian membership in particular would add considerable new resources. The Charter board discussed a need to increase its visibility within the global science community, as it offers an excellent data resource. The USGS will serve as the chair of the Charter for the next six months and is joined on the Charter by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
For a list of member agencies, recent activations, and the text of the Charter, see the Charter’s web site.

Disaster Roundtable Discusses Use of Satellites for Disaster Response (7/10)
The Disasters Roundtable of the National Research Council’s Division on Earth and Life Studies held a workshop to develop a vision for the future use of remote sensing technologies before, during, and after natural disasters. Panelists from both the data production and data user communities discussed how to use collaboration, public engagement, and data sharing to bridge the gap between technologists and end users of natural disaster data. Stuart Gill of the World Bank stressed that there is need to “look at the entire disaster cycle,” and use remotely sensed data to prepare for natural disasters instead of solely using data in disaster response. In order to do this, some panelists argued for development of specific technologies such as full spectral capacity, while others argued for finding ways to better utilize existing platforms. The group agreed, however, that it will be important to pursue greater integration of remote sensing data to reduce risks so that disasters can be avoided in the future.

For more information on the Disasters Roundtable, visit the website.

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Drought is a persistent and abnormal moisture deficiency that has adverse impacts on water supply, water quality, hydropower, vegetation, soils, animals, and people. It results from large-scale disruptions of atmospheric circulation patterns that may persist for months or years. All droughts originate from too little precipitation (i.e., meteorological drought), but vulnerability is increasing as land- and water-use patterns change. Droughts may also be getting longer and more intense.

Droughts can have severe local, regional, and national consequences. Besides restricting water supplies for people and communities, droughts affect agriculture, transportation, energy, forestry, and ecosystems. Drought response in the U.S. is estimated to cost up to $8 billion per year. A recent government report noted that water shortages are expected to occur in 39 states over the next decade. According to the USGS, the ongoing drought in the West could be the biggest regional drought in 500 years.

The National Integrated Drought Information System Act of 2006 (NIDIS) was passed during the 109th Congress (H.R. 5136, Public Law 109-430). The act authorized the appropriation of $81 million through fiscal year 2012 to serve three purposes: provide an effective drought warning system, coordinate federal research for such a system, and grow existing drought forecasting and assessment programs. The information system was established within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which maintains a web page with drought information. More information about NIDIS and droughts can be found on the U.S. Drought Portal.

An earthquake is a sudden slip on a fault that is caused by stress buildup in the crust. It is most often caused by the tectonic movement of crustal plates but can be initiated by volcanic or magmatic activity. An earthquake releases energy in the form of seismic waves that can cause shaking and damage over large distances. See the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program page for more information.
According to the USGS, there are about 500,000 detectable earthquakes in the world each year. Of these, about 100,000 are felt, and about 100 cause damage to communities. Earthquakes can cause primary damage or earthquakes can initiate secondary damage through landslides, tsunamis or fires. Geoscientists are involved in numerous activities and research projects related to earthquakes, from incorporating new data into earthquake hazard maps to determining how the shaking produced during an earthquake affects man-made structures. The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) was created as part of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977 (S. 126, Public Law 95-124).

NEHRP was reauthorized in 1997 (S. 910, Public Law 105-47), 2000 (H.R. 1550, Public Law 106-503) and in 2004 (H.R. 2608, Public Law 108-360). It was last reauthorized with the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act of 2003 (H.R. 2608), which became law in October of 2004 (Public Law 108-360). The program aims to reduce earthquake-related losses through improved design and construction methods and practices, land use controls and redevelopment, prediction techniques and early-warning systems, coordinated emergency preparedness plans, and public education and involvement programs.

In the 111th Congress, the House passed the Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2010 (H.R. 3820) to reauthorize NEHRP and support a wind hazards program, but it failed to make it out of the Senate. It proposed to shift post-earthquake investigations from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and form a new Interagency Coordinating Committee on Natural Hazards Risk Reduction that would oversee NEHRP, the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP) and other federal research for natural hazard mitigation.

A flood is the inundation of a normally dry area resulting from a variety of natural and human-induced causes, such as heavy rain, snow melt, severe storms, hurricanes, breaches of levees or dams or poorly designed development. A flood can happen anywhere—along the Mississippi, in New England, or even in the desert.
Flooding poses tremendous danger to people and property. They are among the most common and widespread of all natural hazards. Even more importantly, they are the number one weather-related killer. On average, floods killed 64 people per year in the U.S. from 2000-2009. Floods are the most costly of the natural hazards. During recent years, floods and flash floods have caused nearly $6 billion in damage each year.

Despite local efforts to mitigate flood hazards and federal regulation of development in flood-prone areas, flood damage has been increasing in the United States. See the FEMA Flood Hazards page or NOAA Flood Watch for more information.

Hurricanes are tropical cyclones with winds that exceed 64 knots (74 miles per hour) and circulate counter-clockwise about their centers in the northern hemisphere. Hurricanes form from complexes of thunderstorms whose surface winds tap and concentrate the moisture available from a warm ocean (warmer than 81° F). As a hurricane nears land, it can bring storm surges, torrential rains, high winds, and tornadoes. Hurricanes occur in coastal states, though flooding and tornadoes can occur inland.

The impact of hurricanes in the United States is an average of 20 deaths and $5.2 billion per year. On average ten tropical storms form during the Atlantic hurricane season, with 6 becoming hurricanes and 2-3 becoming major hurricanes. However hurricane activity in the Atlantic is cyclical, on a multi-decade scale. Since the mid-1990s, activity has increased sharply and this period of heightened activity could last another 10 to 20 years. FEMA maintains a web page on hurricane preparedness and NOAA has a National Hurricane Center site.

In 2005, the U.S. experienced a record-breaking hurricane season, which included the costliest storm in history. Hurricane Katrina caused about $96 billion in damage, displaced about 770,000 people, killed an estimated 1,330, and wreaked havoc that New Orleans is still recovering from today. Though the hurricane was deadly, most died from subsequent flooding rather than directly from storm surge or high winds.

A landslide is the downslope movement of rock and soil that occurs when the force of gravity exceeds the resistance of the underlying earth. Factors that cause landslides include water saturation, erosion, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, alternating freezing and thawing of ground and poor land development activities. They are also a typical secondary effect of wildfires because the loss of vegetation can lead to rapid erosion and unstable ground during heavy rain.

Two thirds of the U.S. population resides in counties or parishes that have areas susceptible to landslides. Landslides destroy property, disrupt traffic, and cause injuries and deaths. Nationally, landslides cause 25-50 deaths each year and up to $2 billion in losses annually, according to the American Red Cross. They are a common phenomenon in all 50 states. Landslide preparation information can be found from FEMA's web site, and the USGS maintains a page with research information and outreach.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. In an average year, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the United States, resulting in 80 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries, according to NOAA. The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction, with damage paths as wide as a mile and as long as 50 miles and wind speeds of 250 mph or more. Destruction of homes, crops, and utility infrastructure cost the U.S. an average of $1.1 billion every year.

According to the USGS, while about a quarter of all major tornadoes have occurred in tornado alley, which includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and eastern Colorado, only 9 percent of the major killers have occurred there. In recent years, the majority of high fatality tornadoes have been in places where tornadoes are rare. This fact showcases the importance of tornado preparedness, warning, and monitoring systems across the U.S. The FEMA Tornado page provides safety tips, and NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has information on tornado watches and warnings.

Tsunamis, mistakenly called “tidal waves,” are a series of enormous waves that can travel at hundreds of miles per hour and crash into land with heights of 100 feet or more. Usually generated by an underwater earthquake, tsunami waves travel outward in all directions from the area of origination. Submarine landslides, volcanic eruptions, or meteorite impacts may cause tsunamis.

The tsunami hazard in the U.S. is greatest for the coastal states along the active Pacific Rim: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. Though massive tsunamis are rare, historical accounts prove there is potential for one in the U.S. The last great tsunami to affect the U.S. struck Alaska, California, and Hawaii in March of 1964, killing 128 people. A magnitude 9.2 earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska near Anchorage—the largest recorded earthquake in the state—caused the tsunami. Education and basic emergency planning are the keys to mitigating tsunami related disasters in the western U.S. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains an educational tsunami website with information on preparedness and the agency’s tsunami programs.

On December 26, 2004 a magnitude 9.2 earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra in the Indian Ocean triggered the most devastating tsunami in recorded history, killing more than 280,000 people and causing an estimated $10 billion in economic losses in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and several other southeast Asian nations. In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. assessed its own tsunami preparedness and responded with legislation to strengthen it. In May 2005, President Bush approved an emergency spending bill (H.R. 1268) that included more than $20 million in funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to enhance the nation's tsunami warning capabilities.

The Tsunami Warning and Education Act, introduced as S. 50 and passed as H.R. 1674, was signed into law in December of 2006 (Public Law 109-424). The measure authorized NOAA to expand and modernize the nation's current tsunami detection and warning system. Additional tsunami detection buoys and other monitoring and warning technology, a federal-state partnered mitigation program to prepare at-risk communities, and a tsunami research program are major components of the law. The law directs NOAA to provide technical assistance to international partners, especially countries in the Indian Ocean, as they work to establish regional and global warning systems.

Lava flows, pyroclastic flows of hot ash and volcanic gas, ash falls, and lahars and debris avalanches are all potentially dangerous events related to volcanic eruptions. Volcanic ash composed of glass and minerals can disrupt aviation activity and worsen air quality. Lahars are slurries of mud, volcanic debris and water that can bury or destroy everything in their path.

Annual volcanic activity around the world claims lives, devastates cities, creates hundreds of thousands of refugees, and causes economic losses exceeding $1 billion. However, structured crisis management programs and early evacuations have saved thousands of lives. Mitigation of volcanic hazards is an important goal of the geoscience community.

The U.S. is home to more than 169 young volcanoes, of which 55 are considered threatening to life and property. Most of these occur in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Hawaii. Sufficient monitoring can predict an eruption weeks to months in advance and aviation authorities can be warned of dangerous plumes within minutes. The predictions come from the five USGS volcano observatories that monitor and assess volcanic hazards. In 2006, these observatories issued more than 1000 public advisories about current conditions at U.S. volcanoes. More information can be found at the USGS volcano program and the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism project.

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in spring 2010 reminded the international community of the aviation risks volcanoes pose. The volcano in southeast Iceland, also known as Eyjafjöll, began erupting in late March for the first time since 1823 and continued to erupt on a smaller scale through late May. A second phase of eruption began on April 14 and generated ash plumes that blew east to Europe. The plumes resulted in 20-80% decrease of airline flights for as much as a week, and more than 100,000 flights were canceled after the ash plume caused aviation authorities in many parts of Europe to close their airspace for several days.

In the 111th Congress, policymakers attempted to pass legislation to strengthen warning and monitoring systems in the U.S. Alaskan senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich introduced the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (S. 782) and Representative Don Young (R-AK) sponsored the House version (H.R. 4847), but neither made it to the President’s desk. The bills would have established the National Volcano Early Warning System (NVEWS) within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) with a budget of $15 million per year. NVEWS is a proposed national-scale plan to ensure the 57 most dangerous and under-monitored volcanoes in the U.S. are properly monitored by upgrading existing networks, installing new networks, and creating a 24/7 watch office and national volcano data center to provide timely and accurate hazard forecasts to reduce risk to life and property.

Wildfires are unplanned fires that can cause the loss of life and property. They include escaped prescribed burns, human-induced fires, and fires ignited by natural causes. According to FEMA, nine out of ten wildfires are caused by people with lightning as the leading natural cause. Though most wildfires are extinguished while still relatively small, the 3% of wildfires that do escape early detection and suppression account for 95% of the fire-related costs, damages and home losses. Annual wildfire losses, including building destruction and declines in lumber production and tourism, can cost the federal government and insurance companies billions of dollars. After a wildfire there is a greater risk of subsequent landslides where burned hills and mountains have weakened soils that are more likely to erode rapidly in normal to heavy rainfall.

The U.S. experiences almost 100,000 wild land fires each year that burn an area about the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Federal agencies spend more than $1.6 billion each year to suppress wildfires. FEMA has a page on wildfire preparation.

In 2009, the House passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act (H.R. 1404), a bipartisan piece of legislation aimed at creating a separate federal fund dedicated to fighting catastrophic, emergency wild land fires. It was prompted by the rising cost of fire suppression that was depleting the Forest Service’s firefighting funds, forcing funds to be transferred from other agencies. The legislation failed to make it past the Senate (S. 561). However, the House and Senate appropriators in 2009 approved a war supplemental spending bill (H.R. 2346) for fiscal year 2009 that included $250 million for wildfire suppression that would serve as a back-up fund for fires if the money appropriated for fire suppression in that year was depleted.

Contributed by and Linda Rowan, Geoscience Policy Staff; Dana Thomas, Spring 2011 AAPG/AGI Intern; Erin Camp, Fall 2011 AAPG/AGI Intern; and Kathryn Kynett, Fall 2012 AAPG/AGI Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Natural Hazards in the 111th Congress, and the Hazard Caucus Alliance webpage.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on November 16, 2012

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